The Ghosts of Choirokoitia by Shannon Savvas

Photo by Mike Yukhtenko on Unsplash

 7th – 4th Millennia BC

Beyond and since.

If you seek ghosts, winter is best. Choirokoitia when the sun shines enough to warm, not heat the air, and tourists with their many tongues cursing the climb and climate have not yet begun their pilgrimages. Here you need your imagination.

Hero-ke-teea, a cicatrice of stones and scrub scoring a steep slope on the island of Cyprus, reveal an ancient occupation begun in the seventh millennium BC, by descendants of farmers who migrated from the Near East two thousand years previously in the ninth millennium BC. Choirokoitia was occupied for three thousand years before inexplicable abandonment. Why did they leave? Where did they go? No evidence of catastrophe – famine, war, plague or climate – has been found to tell the story of Neolithic man. After millennia of births and deaths, only traces remain from which to deduce, interpret and hypothesise. 

Close your eyes. Stand. Feel. Imagine. How could there not be ghosts? 

The ticket booth is manned, not by the usual bored state employee but Kýrie Michális, a wiry one-armed septuagenarian. He offers up tiny treasures, found when he was still a boy with two arms and fierce legs on which he scrabbled goat-like across the terrain and along the dried river bed which once ran to the sea; painted pottery shards, a crudely carved antelope and two polished stone beads because even then, so long ago, humans sought beauty. And as he offers these small, intense remnants of a past lost deep in our present pasts, smile, listen, and however imperfect your thank you may be, offer him your efkaristó in return. 

Before exploring, sit your twenty-first century self, laden with expectations, beliefs and cynical knowledge, on the low stone walls shaded by the carob trees at the entrance. Take a breath then leave that twenty-first century person to drink from her plastic bottle of water, to sweat into her designer tee and shorts, to rest her eyes behind her expensive sunglasses. 

Leave her be. Walk on. Don’t turn right to the reconstructed village for it will blind you to the ghosts. Go left. Go up. Before you climb, stand and tune out the motorway rumble, and the nearby coffee shop clatter. Look upwards, listen to the leaf rustle, bird song, to the scurry, even in early spring, of lizards under bushes. Look around. See the Mediterranean shimmering in the far distance, beyond the dry bed of the Maroni River, beyond hills clothed in winter grass and golden spring flowers – Lazarus daisies – named after their namesake who also took refuge in Cyprus – they too return from the dead every year, leggy fennel, and fluorescent yellow oxynouthia commonly called Cape Sorrel, and lapsanes, the edible wild mustard cooked with olive oil, eggs and lemon. Inhale. The air, still winter-fresh carries a hint of thyme and the wet smell of wild mushrooms hidden in the dark undergrowth. 

Begin your ascent to the stony circuitry of ancient occupation begun in the seventh millennium BC, by descendants of farmers who migrated from the Near East two thousand years before that. Where had they been, what had they done for those two thousand years? Choirokoitia raises many ghosts and many interpretations: pig farmers, iron excavators, palm readers and worshippers. Perhaps all these ghosts have had their turn over these past nine thousand years. Stop. Again, close your eyes. Feel. Neolithic man at the dawn of tools and art. Millennia of births and deaths. Choirokoitia. Occupied for three thousand years before inexplicable abandonment. And if you don’t see the ghosts, can you feel their spirits that occupy this hill, even today? 

An isolated and fortified settlement, enclosed by three metre stone walls, its entrances reveal classic defence construction – external gates opening to narrow-walled passageways doubling back once, twice, before reaching the internal gates; forcing invaders to approach single file, exposed to the defenders guarding the walls above. Now, stand at the gates. Close your eyes. Free your mind. Imagine the breech. Hear the shouts of alarm and attack. Hear the panicked bleating of goats, pigs screaming. Wait for the cries of dismay or the whoops of victory of those on the walls. Listen for the keening after the assault of the new widows and orphans as they gather their dead and bury the bodies and offer up the souls to unknown deities. 

Behind those walls, the rooms are circular, their function intuited by vestiges of raised benches, storage alcoves, hearths, and windows, clustered around a central courtyard. Their spaces strike our modern nourished frames as too cramped for one person never mind a family unit. Use your senses. Measure the closeness and lack of light or air, the irritation of being unable to spread your arms and legs without touching walls, flesh grainy and dull with dirt, the bony angles. Inhale the clagging odour of sweat and animal skins. Imagine always stooped, unable to stand upright. Did these ancient people long for space to stretch out their limbs at night, to roll over without banking against a brother, a wife, a father? The claustrophobia lessens when we learn the habitants were short, barely five-foot-tall, but still, the dwellings are close and tight. Perhaps after days exposed on the surrounding slopes, harvesting the wild pistachios and figs, hunting deer, trekking the forests or trawling the river, they needed the physical proximity and comfort of tribe and family. 

What is known is that our ghosts died young. They buried their dead under their feet, near the hearths. Foetal-curled skeletons flanked by chattels were excavated under the floor of each dwelling. So distant, so alien now, these people were not afraid of their dead and kept them close. Yet, as you look, you wonder. Who did they choose to sleep above? Walk over. Remember?

Where are the rest of the bodies?

After three thousand years, they disappeared. Left the island. No one knows why nor where they went. Aphrodite’s island lay undisturbed under its forests for fifteen hundred years until the Greeks felled much of the island’s trees to build their fleet for the invasion of Troy. The Egyptians, environmental vandals of the ancient world, denuded the island to build the Pharaoh’s ships.

The island of Cyprus was created by myths, gods, empires, but most of all endurance. She bears her ghosts like armour. Ghosts which come, but always move on. Greeks, Alexander the Great, Ptolemaic Egyptians, Romans, Saints Paul, Barnabas and yes, Lazarus who died a second time without interference. Later, Crusaders, Richard the Lionheart, the Knights Templar, the French under Guy de Lusignan, Queen Cornaro and the Venetians, the Ottomans, the British under Queen Victoria, until finally in 1960 after blood and bombs, the British set free what was never theirs in the first place. 

Before democracy can flourish, before the island dare forget or stands to tall, too proud, politics brings the island once more to her knees. In 1974, the island is invaded and, in the aftermath, ghosts are left behind. The fallen of both sides are still lost until today. Their bones waiting to be found, and when they are both bodies and families seek DNA confirmation, so that like the ancients of Choirokitia, they can bury their dead and remember for it is only with a burial can death be accepted, grieving concluded and the hopeless hope that perhaps a beloved has survived is extinguished.

And the once great city of Famagusta, also known as Ammochostos (Αμμόχωστος) to the Greeks, Gazimağusa to the Turks, has become a city of phantoms, abandoned, looted, a bargaining chip eroding under political stalemate. An extraordinary city, a Gothic dream comprising the legendary three hundred and sixty-five ruined churches –the Carmelite Church, the twin churches of the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Nestorian Church of St George the Exiler, and the Cathedral of St Nicholas, its statues and gargoyle faces obliterated under the Ottomans when it was transformed in the mid-1700s to the Lala Mustafa mosque with its carpets and calls to prayer. 

Famagusta where Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago and Desdemona played out their sorry tale, long before the city with its hotels, casinos, luxury yachts and movie stars became the playground of the Levant. 

After 1974, the disputed port city of Famagusta brought new ghosts. Instead of playwrights, her suffering is given voice in the suffocating and wieldy language of international organisations. She is a plaything for politicians for whom wordiness and points of order have more meaning than the city lost or the lives displaced. 

Held ransom, Ammochostos sweeps around the Bay of Famagusta, a scimitar of empty skyscrapers, hotels pockmarked by battle. Gunfire and jets drove the population, Turkish and Greek Cypriots alike, out. Now the houses crumble and the gardens once lush with bougainvillea, palms, fig trees and olives are overgrown, choked by weeds and hemmed by barbed wire. 

Abandoned, this city founded in 274 BC has become the largest, most tragic ghost of them all.

About The Author

Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer who divides her life between New Zealand, England and Cyprus. She is Pushcart nominated (November 2020) by The Phare and the winner of Reflex Fiction (2017), the Cuirt New Writing Prize (2019), Flash500  flash fiction (Summer 2019). Runner up Flash500 short story (2019), Henshaw Press Short Story Prize (2021). Shortlisted 2020 Bath Flash Fiction/Short Story Awards, Literary Taxidermy and The Impress Novel Prize, Flash500,. Published in print/online. Longlisted 2019 & 2020 Commonwealth Prize.

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